multitasking

The busy mind on meditation

Alicia W. Roberts: Even brief sessions can help with multitasking, dealing with deadlines – and pain relief, too

Fadel Zeidan has proven that minimal training in meditation can lessen the perception of pain in research subjects.

He also has shown that similarly brief sessions of meditation can increase cognitive function – the ability to multitask, recall items in a series and complete tests on a deadline.

Now, he wants to find out why even short stints of meditation affect the brain that way.

As a post-doctoral fellow at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, Zeidan is building on research he started at UNC Charlotte. Using…

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“The Quiet Book,” by Deborah Underwood

The Quiet Book, by Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)

In a world where children are constantly exposed to stimulation, there is not enough silence. But a new children’s title, The Quiet Book creates a space of stillness in which children’s imagination and attention can grow.

I have two young children, who are going on two and four. We don’t have a television in the house, and toys that make electronic noises are banned. From time to time we get gifts of toys that beep or (the horror!) play electronic music, but they’re passed swiftly on to our local thrift store or, where the toy has some value, the batteries are removed. In at least one case we’ve explained to a giver, as politely as possible, that certain kinds of noisy toys don’t fit with the atmosphere of our house.

Title: The Quiet Book
Author: Deborah Underwood (illustrated by Renata Liwska)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
ISBN: 9780547215679
Available from: Amazon.com.

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite. Our children love playing with sand and water and paint, exploring the properties of the natural world around them. They enjoy playing dress-up and playing with dolls and toy cars. They can happily spend hours having books read to them, or listening to stories that their parents make up. They’re naturally imaginative. My daughter can entertain us for ages with stories that she makes up for us. Our children don’t need flashes and beeps and electronic versions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in order to become absorbed. On the other hand, children who learn that “fun” involves frantically blinking LEDs and manically chirping music will, I suspect, find it harder to settle down, think creatively, and use their imaginations. I’ve seen children sit in the midst of a seas of such toys, complaining that they’re bored.

Toys that make appalling electronic noises are pitched as “stimulating learning” and as “rewarding exploration.” I think they do the opposite.

It’s not that our house is exactly quiet. We have a toy piano. We listen to music (at the moment my three-year-old daughter insists on Vivaldi). There’s a lot of singing and dancing. And sometimes we’ll let the kids watch some Sesame Street on YouTube or watch a Thomas episode on DVD. And kids like to make noise just for the fun of it. They like to yell and bang things. And there are questions, questions, questions. So there’s plenty of noise But there’s a lot of quiet, too.

The Quiet Book, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska, is — surprise, surprise — about quiet. It’s a book that teaches kids about the different varieties of quiet.

“Different varieties of quiet”? I know, gentle reader, I know. Isn’t all quiet the same? Kind of, you know, an absence of sound? Not quite.

There’s:

  • First one awake quiet,
  • Pretending you’re invisible quiet,
  • Right before you yell “surprise” quiet,
  • Making a wish quiet, and
  • Car ride at night quiet.

All in all there are 29 varieties of quiet in The Quiet Book, my favorite being “Best friends don’t need to talk quiet.”

Renata Liwska’s charming illustrations feature a cast of cute baby animals, but mostly a moose, a bear, a rabbit, a mouse, and a porcupine. They’re funny, and sweet, and they — quietly — dramatize the various kinds of quiet, giving us little vignettes that children and adults can empathize with. There’s the shame on the face of a moose calf being marched out of school by his no-nonsense mother (illustrating “Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet”) and the agonized wishfulness of a baby mouse pretending to be invisible while waiting to get a shot.

My children love this book. And so do I.

There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes.

The Quiet Book teaches children empathy by presenting them with (mostly) real-life situations that they’re bound to experience at some time. It teaches children to appreciate silence, and the activities that take place in silence. It teaches children the value of focusing on one thing, and the value of paying attention. It teaches them the value of daydreaming, and of letting the mind creatively wander. It teaches them that valuable experiences come not from the Pavlovian rewards of complex flashing and beeping toys, but from the simple absorption of the mind in a simple activity.

In a world where our we simultaneously listen to music, surf the net, text, and do work, both the ability to concentrate undistractedly on one task and the ability to let the mind wander into creative pathways are under threat. The Quiet Book is a useful corrective to those trends. Of course it’s not enough in itself. There’s a tendency to think that the solution to every problem is some new product, but what needs to change is our attitudes. Our modern interconnected media are wonderful, but in order that we use those media rather than simply become hopelessly distracted by them, we need to learn discipline, and to teach discipline to our children. We need to learn to unplug — even if it’s just closing Facebook and switching off our phones while we read an article (online or on paper).

We need to learn to appreciate the quiet that allows for deep engagement. If we try to do that, and teach the value of silence to our children, The Quiet Book can help. At the very least, sitting down with your children and reading them this book will helps create a space of stillness in which their imagination and attention can flourish.

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Brain ‘splits to multi-task’

An inability to deal with more than two things at a time may be “hard-wired” into our brain, research suggests.

When we try to do two things at once, each half of the brain focuses on a separate task, French scientists say.

This division of labour could explain why we find it so difficult to multi-task, they report in the journal Science.

It might also explain why people are prone to make irrational decisions when choosing from a long list of items.

Lead author Dr Etienne Koechlin told the BBC: “You can cook and at the same time talk on the phone but you cannot really do a third task such as trying to read a newspaper.

“If you have three or more tasks you lose track of one task.”

The French team used an imaging technique to monitor brain activity in 32 volunteers asked to perform a letter-matching test.

The scans looked at the frontal cortex, the part of the human brain associated with impulse control.

When the volunteers completed one task at a time, one side of a certain area of the frontal lobes lit up.

But, when they completed two tasks at the same time, the lobes divided the tasks between them.

‘Irrational decisions’

Activity on the left frontal lobe matched the primary task (action A) and activity on the right corresponded to the secondary task (action B).

The brain was able to control switching between the two hemispheres when carrying out dual functions but accuracy suffered when a third was added.

Dr Koechlin, of Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, France, said this behaviour could explain why people make “some irrational decisions” when faced with more than two choices.

“My view is that it’s critically related to this division of labour between the two hemispheres to keep track of two tasks or two options but not more,” he explained.

“Our result is likely to provide an explanation for why people are good in binary choice but not multiple choice.”

[via BBC News]
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How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous.

Slate: Seeking. You can’t stop doing it. Sometimes it feels as if the basic drives for food, sex, and sleep have been overridden by a new need for endless nuggets of electronic information. We are so insatiably curious that we gather data even if it gets us in trouble. Google searches are becoming a cause of mistrials as jurors, after hearing testimony, ignore judges’ instructions and go look up facts for themselves. We search for information we don’t even care about. Nina Shen Rastogi confessed in Double X, “My boyfriend has threatened to break up with me if I keep whipping out my iPhone to look up random facts about celebrities when we’re out to dinner.” We reach the point that we wonder about our sanity. Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times said she became so obsessed with Twitter posts about the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest that she spent days “refreshing my search like a drugged monkey.”

We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls.

In 1954, psychologist James Olds and his team were working in a laboratory at McGill University, studying how rats learned. They would stick an electrode in a rat’s brain and, whenever the rat went to a particular corner of its cage, would give it a small shock and note the reaction. One day they unknowingly inserted the probe in the wrong place, and when Olds tested the rat, it kept returning over and over to the corner where it received the shock. He eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain’s lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed.

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Olds, and everyone else, assumed he’d found the brain’s pleasure center (some scientists still think so). Later experiments done on humans confirmed that people will neglect almost everything—their personal hygiene, their family commitments—in order to keep getting that buzz.

But to Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, this supposed pleasure center didn’t look very much like it was producing pleasure. Those self-stimulating rats, and later those humans, did not exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or repeatedly having orgasms. The animals, he writes in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, were “excessively excited, even crazed.” The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging. Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn’t experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be caught in a loop, Panksepp writes, “where each stimulation evoked a reinvigorated search strategy” (and Panksepp wasn’t referring to Bing).

It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits “promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,” Panksepp writes. It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused—cocaine and amphetamines, drugs of stimulation, are particularly effective at stirring it.

Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling? Thank dopamine. Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting “enter” to get our next fix.

University of Michigan professor of psychology Kent Berridge has spent more than two decades figuring out how the brain experiences pleasure. Like Panksepp, he, too, has come to the conclusion that what James Olds’ rats were stimulating was not their reward center. In a series of experiments, he and other researchers have been able to tease apart that the mammalian brain has separate systems for what Berridge calls wanting and liking.

Wanting is Berridge’s equivalent for Panksepp’s seeking system. It is the liking system that Berridge believes is the brain’s reward center. When we experience pleasure, it is our own opioid system, rather than our dopamine system, that is being stimulated. This is why the opiate drugs induce a kind of blissful stupor so different from the animating effect of cocaine and amphetamines. Wanting and liking are complementary. The former catalyzes us to action; the latter brings us to a satisfied pause. Seeking needs to be turned off, if even for a little while, so that the system does not run in an endless loop. When we get the object of our desire (be it a Twinkie or a sexual partner), we engage in consummatory acts that Panksepp says reduce arousal in the brain and temporarily, at least, inhibit our urge to seek.

But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. “The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the possibility of a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one.

Just how powerful (and separate) wanting is from liking is illustrated in animal experiments. Berridge writes that studies have shown that rats whose dopamine neurons have been destroyed retain the ability to walk, chew, and swallow but will starve to death even if food is right under their noses because they have lost the will to go get it. Conversely, Berridge discovered that rats with a mutation that floods their brains with dopamine learned more quickly than normal rats how to negotiate a runway to reach the food. But once they got it, they didn’t find the food more pleasurable than the nonenhanced rats. (No, the rats didn’t provide a Zagat rating; scientists measure rats’ facial reactions to food.)

That study has implications for drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors. Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite,” he explains.

Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”

The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small, discrete, specific—like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the “ding” announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders “a panting appetite,” Berridge says—a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.

If humans are seeking machines, we’ve now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious. In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes of driving two indoor cats crazy by flicking a laser pointer around the room. They wouldn’t stop stalking and pouncing on this ungraspable dot of light—their dopamine system pumping. She writes that no wild cat would indulge in such useless behavior: “A cat wants to catch the mouse, not chase it in circles forever.” She says “mindless chasing” makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs “because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior.” As we chase after flickering bits of information, it’s a salutary warning.

Emily Yoffe is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner. You can send your Human Guinea Pig suggestions or comments to emilyyoffe@hotmail.com.

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Publilius Syrus, “To do two things at once is to do neither”

Publilius Syrus, author of To do two things at once is to do neither

The other day I read about a family of six who were wiped out when a truck-driver plowed into their vehicle. He’d allegedly been driving and attempting to look at a laptop screen at the same time.

Not all multitasking is that catastrophic, but nevertheless attempting to juggle too many things in a short space of time is causing us stress, reducing our productivity, and making it harder to maintain focus when we need to.

What happens in the long term to an economy built on the labor of information workers when those workers are too distracted to think? Well, perhaps that might be considerably more of a catastrophe than a single family being killed — no matter how tragic an event that was.

To do two things at once is to do neither (Publilius Syrus, an Iraqi enslaved by the Romans. Flourished first century BCE.)

Multitasking is actually a misnomer. Your brain hasn’t evolved to deal with consciously processing multiple streams of data, such as listening to someone talk on the phone while you check your email and try also to keep one ear open for tidbits of an interesting conversation nearby. Modern computers may have been designed to do this, but our brains evolved to live in a simpler world. So we can’t genuinely multitask. What we call multitasking is actually a process of switching attention rapidly among a number of different activities.

The problem with multitasking is that although it may give the illusion of efficiency, it’s actually a very bad way to use the brain’s resources. It takes time, when switching from one task to another, to let go of one task, move your attention to the new one, and to resume your train of thought once again.

Imagine you’re doing some painting at the top of a stepladder and the phone keeps ringing (one of those old-fashioned phones with a wire, not the cordless variety). Every time the phone rings you put down your paintbrush, descend the ladder, answer the phone, write down a message or have a conversation, go up the ladder again, pick up your brush, and then resume your task. And this happens every three minutes. How much painting would you get done?

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted.

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted, by a phone call, an incoming email, a passing colleague, or some other task that pops into the mind. And that process of stopping one task, moving to another, and switching back all takes time and energy in the brain.

This is why, when subjects are asked to perform two different tasks at the same time, the amount of brain activity goes down rather than up. The level of brain activity actually decreases to two thirds of what takes place when subjects perform one task at a time.

Confirming this finding is an experiment where subjects were asked either to check their email and then write a report — the tasks performed sequentially — or to do both tasks at the same time. The multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

My ladder metaphor is exactly the situation many of us put ourselves in when we interrupt writing to read an incoming email, and then interrupt reading the email to read and incoming text, and then futz around on Facebook for a few minutes before returning to … “What was it I was doing again?”

But not only is multitasking bad for our efficiency, it’s been implicated in reducing our ability to apply sustained focus with our attention. Psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard say that multitasking can lead to “pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder,” where we constantly seek new information but have trouble concentrating on its content. We end up restlessly seeking new stimuli, and unable to focus on it, in an information-worker’s version of the myth of the “hungry ghost.”

So what can we do to help avoid pseudo-ADD and multitasking-induced loss of productivity?

Multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

1. Switch off contact applications except for the one you’re working on.
Right at this very moment I’m writing an article on multitasking. Wouldn’t you love to know that I’m also checking my email, my Twitter updates, my IM, and stopping now and then to answer my phone and scan interesting web articles. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not. My email and other contact programs are closed. My cell-phone is in another room. I’ll deal with any messages later.

When you’re dealing with email, deal with email. Let your voicemail pick up your phone calls. If dealing with your email requires you to look up an article or check your calendar, then by all means do so. But avoid unnecessary input.

2. Use simplifying tools
Some computer programs are hideously cluttered, with the toolbars on Microsoft programs being particularly overwhelming. And how many of those buttons do you ever use anyway? Do you even know what they do? I’ve reduced my toolbars in Word to just a few essentials, while for many common functions I simply use keyboard shortcuts, which in themselves reduce multitasking because they don’t require us to move from one kind of activity (typing) to another (selecting menus). The reduction in visual clutter helps me maintain focus.

It’s also helpful to write first and then format later. Trying to fiddle with formatting at the same time as writing is like trying to tidy the inside of your car while you’re driving it.

You can go further. For writing I use a program called “WriteRoom,” which has no menus and whose interface looks like an early 1980’s PC – simple green text on a black background (although the colors can be customized. There’s nothing there to distract me.

If you have a Mac or a large monitor, the profusion of applications on the screen can induce clutter-fatigue. You can simplify by using command+shift+H to hide all applications but those you’re working on. Or you can use “Spaces” to keep application that are open, but which you’re not currently using, out of sight and out of mind.

How many of those buttons in Word do you ever use anyway?

3. Use planning tools
Before I started using planning tools I’d often find that I’d repeatedly remember — often at completely inappropriate times, like driving or meditating — about things I had to do. Things improved a lot when I started doing “brain-dumps” to record all the tasks that had been jumbled up in my mind. You need to capture everything — not just work tasks but personal ones too.

Tools such as OmniFocus not only encourage you to keep lists of things to do, but they also help you organize them by context, so that if you find you have to nip out to the bank you can easily see which other tasks (pick up the dry-cleaning, pick up a prescription) that you can do while you’re out and about.

I have to say that using planning tools has reduced the level of distraction in my meditation practice more than any meditative technique I’ve ever learned.

4. Practice simplicity
I’m not very proficient at being tidy, although I have my good days — and on those days I feel happier and lighter. “Being tidy” is the end result of finishing one task elegantly before starting another; rather than leave a bit of paper on the desk as a reminder that some action has to be taken we add the action to our to-do list and file the paper in a “projects in progress” file. Being tidy also provides a good environment for the mind to perform without distraction.

We should be willing to be in silence.

We can also do things like take one or two deep breaths before answering the phone, so that we give ourselves time to let go of what we were just doing and get ourselves into a focused and friendly state before we speak to the person on the other end. When you’re calling a company, would you prefer the phone picked up two seconds earlier, or to be picked up by a person who is centered and friendly?

We should also be willing to be in silence. I use some of my time in the car to listen to podcasts, but I also regard it as important just to drive without other input, and so sometimes my iPod goes off. Driving in silence gives us a chance to let the mind rest without a constant barrage of input.

5. Defrag your mind
Take breaks during the workday: just two or three minutes spent relaxing the body and tuning in to the breath. Your brain needs a chance to rest, and your mind needs opportunities to “defragment” itself.

Time taken out for meditation also helps the mind to become calmer and less restless.

When you’re working on one task, resist the desire to interrupt yourself by checking your email, or Facebook, or whatever. If you’re writing and you notice those temptations arising, just notice them and let go of them. They’ll pass.

It’s not possible to escape multitasking altogether. In fact at times it’s essential. But if we avoid it where we can, and especially if we resist become addicted to it, we’ll feel happier and more integrated. And we’ll make a long-term investment by protecting one of our most valuable assets — the mind’s ability to pay sustained, focused, attention.

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